The Weekly Food Research and Action Center News Digest highlights what's new on hunger, nutrition and poverty issues at FRAC, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, around the network of national, state and local anti-poverty and anti-hunger organizations, and in the media. The Digest will alert you to trends, reports, news items and resources and, when available, link you directly to them.
Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, said he doesn't "see any way to make the numbers work for middle-income people" this winter, when fuel prices will continue to rise and New England families will face $1,600 to $1,700 bills for heating oil, gas and electricity. "They're already shopping at Wal-Mart…They'll have to cut back everything that makes them middle class," he added. "At some point, you're poor." Spikes in the cost of natural gas will, according to industry analysts, result in families paying 30 to 50 percent more to heat their homes this winter, and oil price hikes will force bills to increases from 50 to 100 percent. State officials want Congress to increase funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the nation's primary heating assistance program. At its current funding level of $2.57 billion, it only helps 17 percent of the poor and rising prices mean the program might serve fewer households. Families could face utility shutoffs because they're unable to pay their fuel bills. Between April 2007 and 2008, 41 percent more New York state residents experienced shutoffs (22,209 in 2007; 31,305 in 2008). Boston officials are identifying warming centers where families can escape the cold and warn police and fire departments to prepare for more 911 calls from people who run out of heat.
A nationwide poll conducted between June 18 and July 7, 2008 by the Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University found that low-wage workers making no more than $27,000 in 2007 have been hit hard by the current economy. Almost half of those surveyed said they "struggle to pay for food," and the "vast majority…are having trouble paying for gas, saving for retirement…Most find it difficult to afford health care and housing." Postponing medical and dental care and minimizing electricity and heat use are the primary methods many use to make ends meet. Half said they could survive a month if they lost their jobs, while a third said they would only survive two weeks or less. One family said they pawned DVDs, jewelry and other valuables to "put food on the table." While some mentioned they took advantage of government food assistance programs - like Crystal Willis, an Oklahoma City sales associate who receives WIC benefits - more than half believe that government programs "aren't having much impact." The majority feel the federal government and corporate America has some responsibility for their situation. The article is the first of a series The Washington Post will run over the coming weeks detailing the lives of low-income Americans.
3. South Dakota County Has Highest Child Poverty Rate
A new report shows Ziebach County in South Dakota had the highest child poverty rate in the nation in 2005 - 70 percent of children in the county lived in poverty. Nine other counties in the state, also with high American Indian populations, had very high child poverty rates. South Dakota's Rural Live Census Data Center issued the report, which was based on Census Bureau statistics showing the state's child poverty rate increased from 17.1 percent in 2000 to 18.3 percent in 2005. (Article available through site's archives.)
According to a survey released in May by the Ohio AARP, the number of seniors having trouble "making ends meet" is growing, and many are cutting back on expensive medications and the amount of groceries they buy. The survey found that 59 percent of seniors 65 and over had trouble paying for basic items like food, gas and medicine and 47 percent had difficulties paying for heating, cooling or phone service. Fairfield County Job and Family Services Adult Unit supervisor Barb Abram saw her food stamp and Medicaid caseload increase by 500 cases in the last year. Service providers are seeing the result of these statistics - Meals on Wheels volunteer and community outreach coordinator Mary-jan Gard said she's noticed 50 more people each day arriving for lunches the organization serves. "Some of the people are only eating the meal we provide for them. We are seeing a lot of malnourished adults and people who say, yeah, I need to take three heart medications a day, but I'm only taking one." Gard wonders what they do on the weekends when the meals aren't served. She encourages struggling seniors to ask for help, advising them that there's no reason to be ashamed as everyone needs help at some point. One senior, Jenny Singer, hasn't yet cut back on medications although she has cut back on groceries, and fears what will happen to her if prices continue to rise.
Medicaid state regulators in Ohio are sorting through a 16,000 case backlog, causing many to experience long delays in services. Randall Lee II, a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy, has been waiting for two years for a new motorized wheelchair - his current model is falling apart - but has been told numerous times that the delay has been caused by wrong numerical codes and other technical problems. A 53-year-old mother of two waited a year and a half for the state to determine she was disabled, which made her delay follow-up treatment for ovarian cancer and a heart attack. And a 57-year-old man suffering from a failing heart, vascular disease, hepatitis and other problems has been waiting three years for his Social Security determination. One attorney noted a case she handled for a cancer patient applying for Medicaid. The patient waited so long to be approved that the cancer had spread throughout his body, killing him. Government officials cite money and staffing shortages as the main causes of the backlog. Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue, however, enumerated to Congress the exact problems with the federal agency: increased baby-boomer caseload, years of under-funding, a 5 percent reduction in staff between 2003 and 2007, and increased responsibilities for the program.
Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) has stopped implementing their "controversial" privatization of the welfare system, after that system, designed to streamline state processes for food stamp and other aid applications, caused major delays and, in some cases, denied benefits. Clients said they were kept on hold for long periods, burning up cell phone minutes, and didn't have a local office to call with questions. Some elderly, sick, and disabled clients, and those with little education, told social workers the new system confused them and that they missed meeting with caseworkers. Area food banks noticed increases in demand, and some social service organizations reported being swamped with requests to help applicants fill out government forms. FSSA said the system is meant to help more Indiana residents as well as reduce fraud and mistakes prevalent in the old system. The $1.16 billion project, contracted with IBM and other companies, handled applications for food stamps, Medicaid and other services by phone or online; face-to-face caseworker meetings were eliminated for those served by the new system. Harrison County Community Services executive director Shirley Raymond saw a 66 percent increase in use of their food pantry and other services in the first half of this year as compared to the same time last year. The American Civil Liberties union brought a lawsuit against the state, claiming minor paperwork problems canceled aid to needy Hoosiers. New Albany Housing Authority Director of Family Support Services Sherian McLendon noted the extensive effect the system's problems have on many Indiana clients. "We work in public housing so we have the poorest of all, and most all of our residents get food stamps and Medicaid. So when they lose their benefits they get behind on their rent. It's like a domino effect." State data corroborated the client and provider tales - the number of people receiving food stamps in the 12 county region served by the new system dropped more than 11 percent between May and October 2007 as the new FSSA system was put into effect. Statistics released by FSSA showed that 11.5 percent of calls to the vendors' 800 number hung up or abandoned the calls, with some people kept on hold for more than 10 minutes.
Council Bluffs district schools served lunches this summer, and saw an increase in the numbers of children showing up for the meals. Nutrition Services Supervisor Virginia Bechtold was not surprised at the increase: "The numbers match the economic need that we've seen," she said, citing a 41 percent increase in lunches served in June 2008 versus the same time last year, as well as a 12 percent increase in breakfasts served. The increases match a similar rise in the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, which rose from 54 percent at the beginning of the 2007-08 school year to 60 percent at the end of the year. Serving the summer meals is no chore for the district. "We like to have lots of kids come," mentioned Bechtold. "It's a federally funded program, and it was free and open to anybody through the age of 18. All kids need a nutritious meal."
Oregon's Marion and Polk counties are seeing higher rates of child abuse and neglect, children entering foster care, and increased gang activity, with more than 1,000 lacking a permanent home, and scarce child care availability. Children have historically been more at risk in Marion County than in other Oregon counties; the county ranks "near the bottom statewide in academic achievement, leading to low graduation rates." Polk County's percentage of juvenile arrests is high, as is the rate of childhood obesity and cases of child abuse and neglect. The Statesman Journal has pledged over the next five months to investigate this likelihood for children in these counties to live in poverty, and will investigate the problems they've identified through listening to community members. The child safety and development issues fall into five areas: stability, early care and development, child welfare, health and youth development. Alison Kelley, director of the Marion County Department of Children and Families, notes the stress all of the county's social problems have on children. "Right now, our kids are facing such a host of issues that it makes living day to day very difficult," she said.
Electric bills will rise 5.2 percent this year, and 9.8 percent in 2009, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Utility rate increases are climbing as much as 30 percent across the nation, and average monthly homeowner bills are $70 to $80 in some states. Disconnect notices are on the rise, as low- and middle-income households experience trouble paying the bills; Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, notes "in the summer it used to be that 1 percent to 2 percent of consumers were shut off for not paying their bills, now it's in the range of 5 percent. Electricity's been cheap for a long time, it's just catching up."
A city-wide initiative to help needy families deal with high food prices is targeting 200,000 families in the borough of Queens by sending them letters letting them know they may be eligible for food stamps, plus brochures telling them how to apply and what benefits are available. Families were identified through the city's Medicaid and Family Health Plus database, which has similar eligibility requirements; 197,869 households not yet enrolled in the Food Stamp Program were found. Citywide, 600,000 households were identified. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, at an event announcing the initiative, noted that many of these families are having great difficulty affording meals, as "skyrocketing food prices" have added "to the burden of rising rents, gas prices and other costs."
11. Food Stamps Not Reaching All Eligible in Connecticut
It's estimated that one-third of food stamp eligible families in Connecticut are not receiving the benefit, prompting Foodshare, Inc., which supplies food to soup kitchens and food pantries in the Hartford area, to begin outreach to these families and help them apply. Food assistance requests have risen across the state, with the United Way of Connecticut's 211 information line registering 8,300 calls so far this year, 2,000 more than last year. Requests for assistance have not been limited to urban areas, as officials in the more affluent shoreline towns - Avon, Enfield, Newington, Portland - say they are handling high numbers of food assistance requests.
Massachusetts has made applying for food stamps easier at the same time high food prices are driving more and more residents to seek out the benefits, raising food stamp participation across the state. The aid has been particularly helpful for the family of Cheryl Heston, who finished up chemotherapy only to lose the home she shared with her husband and son. Still unable to work due to her illness, Heston and her family found an apartment, only to have her husband lose his job. Food stamps came to the family's rescue. Heston was able to apply, fill out the paperwork and get her first $400 in benefits a week after submitting the application, without having to visit the Greenfield office of the state Department of Transitional Assistance. Once she received her family's food stamps, she was able to stock up on "real food" for the first time in four years. In 2006, Massachusetts was named the "most improved" in food stamp participation. This year, the state set up satellite offices and food stamp outreach centers to make the application process much more accessible. The state has worked to eliminate a major barrier to participation, the "demeaning" application and ongoing re-certification processes. Some eligible households are now only required to get re-certified after 12 to 24 months, instead of the three to six-month time period in the past.
Telling state lawmakers "We represent that safety net that everybody talks about," Athens County Job and Family Services Director Jack Frech joined children and family service directors from counties in Ohio to push the state for increased food stamp, health care and Ohio Works Program benefits. Families receiving food stamps and cash assistance are currently 50 percent below the poverty line, Frech told lawmakers. "We're recommending we give them an extra $100 a month, which would still not bring them near the poverty level." Increased prices for food and gas are straining family budgets, in spite of the fact that many of these households receiving aid have adults that are currently working. The group, gathered under the name of "Don't Turn Away Ohio," advocates for increased health services for adults under the poverty line and streamlined Medicaid and Social Security application processes. Frech noted the need to help households be self-sufficient in battling hunger. "My guess is that the average person has no idea how little these people live on," he said. "We're just trying to make everyone aware."
14. California County's Unemployment Highest in Decade
A survey of 231 of Nevada County's food stamp, Medi-Cal and General Assistance recipients revealed that half were unemployed or underemployed. Of that number, 19 percent were in construction, 16 percent were medical care givers, 14 percent in retail, and 13 percent in food service. Taken by the county's Department of Social Services, the survey mirrors statistics released by the state's Economic Development Department, which showed the county's June unemployment rate of 6.6 percent, the highest in ten years and up from 4.7 percent in June 2007. The county also had six consecutive months with unemployment rates higher than 6 percent. Department of Social Services Director Alison Lehman has seen increased applications for food stamps and other assistance, as well as increased competition for jobs. One temporary position recently advertised by the Department received 95 applications; in the past, such a job would only receive 10 to 15 applications.
Food stamp recipients in Queens would like to shop at the borough's greenmarkets but can't, as only two of the five markets accept food stamps. Greenmarkets help "bridge the nutrition gap" for many New Yorkers, but the Queens markets were excluded from a program that supplies New Yorkers with coupons to use at the markets. Food stamp recipient Claudia Cunningham, who relies on food stamps to feed her large family, would love to shop at the greenmarkets. "There is fresher food, better food," at those markets, she said, "but there are none around here."
16. Official Wants Food Stamps for New York's Unemployed
A bill Brooklyn Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez (D) is pushing would link unemployment benefits to food stamps and help the state's 500,000 unemployed adults put food on the table while they look for work. Currently, unemployed workers are limited to three months of food stamps for every three years they are out of work. The bill would extend the food stamp eligibility time by a year. Velazquez, in introducing the bill, called on "this nation, the most powerful country in the world" to "provide a safety net for those most vulnerable."
Children in New Delhi are skipping breakfast and binging on high calorie foods available at their school "canteens" later in the day, causing an epidemic of obesity in the city according to a study released by the Diabetes Foundation of India. Children are also not taking lunchboxes to school - with both parents working, there's little time to pack them - also causing students to buy snack foods for lunch, and many children are leading sedentary lives. A survey by the Delhi Diabetes Research Center found 18 percent of children ages 10-14 are overweight, with 6 percent actually obese. Dr. Anoop Misra, director of diabetes and metabolic diseases for Fortis Healthcare, who conducted the Diabetes Foundation survey, warns parents "If a child doesn't have breakfast, he is likely to be more hungry during recess and eat more. And if they do not carry tiffin box to school, eating junk food at the canteen remains the only option." Some New Delhi schools have taken action against the rising rates over overweight children and are only making soft drinks and "junk" food available to students once a week.